|Baptisms in Green Lake, Wisconsin|
As I prepared for this sermon last week I thought a lot about this word agapetoi. It contains the word agape, that word used, among 4 Greek words for "love," to especially describe the love of God. Sometimes this word is called "unconditional love." Surely God's love is unconditional. Conditional love is "if - then" love, which says things like "If you do well, then I will love you," and "Because you have sinned, I am withholding my love from you." Conditional love is "love" in the kingdom of darkness. It is not the love of God. Conditional love is punishing and performance-based.
I am loved by God. Dearly and unconditionally. This is intimate and tender language. As I reflected on this word I thought of a number of things. Linda and I used to lead ministry to children, and we taught them a song that began "Beloved, let us love one another." I think I'll teach that to our Redeemer kids in a few weeks. I thought of my friend Pastor John Grove, who always addresses his church family with the word "Beloved." I remembered the brilliant theologian Karl Barth, who wrote millions of words in books like his massive Church Dogmatics (containing footnotes as long as 60 pages!). On a visit to America Barth once summarized all his writings by saying, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I think of a pastor in one of my seminary prayer classes. I sent him out to pray and he didn't return to class. The next day I asked him what happened, and he replied that while praying God told him "I love you" and he could not leave that place. He just stayed in that praying place basking in his belovedness.
I think of my conversion to Christ. I was 21. I'd heard the words "God loves you" countless times. But one day a campus minister at Northern Illinois University told me "I don't know the answers to all your questions, but I do believe there is a God and that God loves you." These words exploded in my heart. I knew, experientially and existentially and in a whole being way, that I was beloved, by God. This was the turning point of my life.
Henri Nouwen writes:
"Could it be that beneath all the lures to greed, lust, and success rests a great fear of never being enough or not being lovable? Instead of taking a careful look at the circumstances or trying to understand my own and others’ limitations without rejection or judgment, when I fall into temptation, I tend to blame myself— not just for what I did but for who I am. My dark side says, “I am no good. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten , rejected, and abandoned.” Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence." (Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, p. 26)
The core truth of my existence is that I am beloved. My continual prayer is that this truth would move from the periphery of my mind to the core of my heart.